PM Manmohan to visit Afghanistan amid regional uncertainty

NEW DELHI Thu May 12, 2011 12:49am IST

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (C) speaks during an election campaign rally ahead of the third phase of elections on the outskirts of Kolkata April 23, 2011. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (C) speaks during an election campaign rally ahead of the third phase of elections on the outskirts of Kolkata April 23, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will travel to Afghanistan for two days on Thursday to discuss security and development, the Prime Minister's office said on Wednesday, amid regional uncertainty following the death of Osama bin Laden.

Any quickening of the endgame in Afghanistan is a concern for India, which fears a U.S. withdrawal would leave it exposed to an unfriendly, Pakistan-dominated neighbourhood and unfettered militancy in its backyard.

The trip will be Singh's first visit to Afghanistan since 2005 and comes just over a week after bin Laden was killed by U.S. special forces in Pakistan.

Singh will be visiting Afghanistan from May 12-13, his office said on its website on Wednesday.

"If our region has to prosper and move ahead, Afghanistan must succeed in rebuilding itself," Singh said in a statement released by India's foreign ministry.

"We will exchange views on developments in the region and our common fight against the scourge of terrorism. The quest of the Afghan people for peace, stability and reconciliation needs the full support of all countries in the region and the international community."

A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said India was interested in hearing Afghan President Hamid Karzai's views on the killing of bin Laden.

"Obviously, the situation post the killing of bin Laden is of concern to all of us, and we would like to hear what Mr Karzai has to say," the official told reporters.

"The Taliban groups which have sanctuary in Pakistan, I don't believe they stand diminished (by bin Laden's death). The groups seem as strong and virulent as ever. The threat has not gone away."

Nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, which have gone to war three times since 1947, have for decades sought to secure leverage in Afghanistan, which gained urgency after U.S. President Barack Obama announced a tentative timeline to start withdrawing military forces from July.

India is Afghanistan's biggest regional aid donor and sixth largest overall. It has pledged $1.3 billion of projects, from building a parliament to a highway to Iran to establish what officials in New Delhi like to term "soft power".

Pakistan derides those attempts to secure influence in what it considers its neighbourhood, but Islamabad has been concerned by a succession of governments in Kabul that it sees as too cosy with New Delhi.

India's embassy in Kabul was hit by two bomb attacks in 2008 and 2009, killing 75 people and wounding hundreds.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blasts, but India has blamed Pakistan's military spy agency, the ISI, for attacks on Indians in Afghanistan to undermine New Delhi's influence.

India has named five Pakistani army officers in a list of 50 criminals it wants extradited to stand trial on terror charges, the first time India has directly accused serving Pakistani military officers of being involved with militancy.

The "most-wanted list" was handed to Pakistan in March, but its contents have only just been released. The timing of the release coincides with increasing pressure on Pakistan over claims it harboured bin Laden.

(Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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